Peak Performance: The Food Swedes Eat

With the Swedes dominating over the British in a surprise sailing victory on Sunday, it begs a question for this foodie, "Was it something they ate?"

When friends visit Sweden and ask if there’s anything they can bring back for me, I always ask for the same things: Cheez Doodles, ättika (vinegar much higher in acidity than available in America), and bittermandel (bitter almond extract). Not exactly icons of healthy foodways.

So when I was first approached about writing on Swedish athletes and their diets, I was curious: What is the typical diet of a Swedish athlete? Certainly they don’t live on endless bags of Cheez Doodles and baked goodies made from bittermandel. I sought out a Real Swede (what we Minnesotans with Swedish roots call anyone born in Sweden) to help answer my questions. Sofia Eriksson interns at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She hails from Örnsköldsvik in Northern Sweden and played soccer for twelve years, including her years in Secondary (the Swedish equivalent to high school) where she attended Sports and Leadership School (where students adhere to a regular curriculum but sports practice and training are also part of the learning experience) with other athletes including ski jumpers and hockey players.

In Sofia’s school the students learned about nutrition during gym class, where eating to improve performance was emphasized. “The main focus in Sweden, the most important meal in Sweden, is breakfast,” Sofia told me. “A lot of what they recommend for athletes may be oatmeal or multi-grain bread with ham and cheese and vegetables like tomato and cucumber.” Muesli with berries and milk or the Nordic dairy product filmjölk or surmjölk (sourmilk), or simply fil, (a thick fermented milk, similar to yogurt but with different cultures) is also a popular breakfast, especially for active Swedes.

“I actually heard a Swedish radio show with a soccer player originally from Brazil. She talked about how she had to change her eating habits,” Sofia explained that the greatest cultural change for soccer phenom Marta Vieira da Silva when she moved to Sweden was the breakfast she began eating each day and a resulting immediate increase in her energy.

During training, Sofia ate the recommended five meals a day using tallriksmodellen (the plate model). Tallriksmodellen is the Swedish equivalent to the USDA MyPlate and it varies according to the physical activity of the eater. Athletes, for example, would eat more complex carbohydrates while sedentary people would eat fewer carbs and more vegetables.

For Swedish athletes, morning and afternoon snacks might include a banana and glass of milk, or a small sandwich with multi-grain bread, cheese and vegetables. Some athletes might reach for a protein drink. Sofia was surprised to see so many Americans snack on chips, candy bars and sugar yogurt. Swedes typically snack on lighter treats such as crispbread and fruit. Desserts are relegated to weekends and special celebrations.

Lunch and dinner depend also on how active the eater is. “If you work out a lot carb, protein and vegetables are typical. Lunch can be meatballs and potatoes, pasta and sausage like pasta Bolognese. Usually a lot of carbohydrates if you work out a lot; my hockey friends filled their plates. They ate a lot.” And dinner would be more of the same.

Swedish athletes, like most Swedes, eat a cuisine that is influenced by travel, immigration and availability. Italian, French, even American cuisine can be seen on Swedish tables as can the traditional flavors of Sweden. Sofia recalled, “My grandma’s food is typical Swedish cuisine. A lot of potatoes, a lot of meat: meatballs, steak with gravy, pasta and sausage, fish, a lot of stew that my grandma served with rice or potatoes. I was so tired of boiled potatoes after I finished school because that’s all we had was boiled potatoes. Now I miss it.” She continued, “I grew up eating a lot of moose because my grandpa hunts so we ate a lot of steak, sometimes filet of fish...just home-cooked meals.”

The irony of Sofia’s filet of fish reference is not lost on me, as McDonald’s is an official Olympic sponsor. But Sofia wasn’t referring to greasy batter-fried fast food fare. In fact, fried, fast and delivered foods are far less common in Sweden that in America. In Örnsköldsvik, a city of nearly 60,000 inhabitants, only one pizza delivery exists. “We have drive-throughs but not in the same way. Not as much. You can still go to McDonald’s or Max Burger.” Sofia laughed as she told me, “McDonald’s had to shut down in my hometown because everyone went to Max.”

“My eating habits have changed since I stopped playing soccer. My sisters (both ski jumpers) eat a lot more because they are still working out. I could feel I didn’t need it anymore because when I worked out a lot I was hungry. Now I don’t need that much.”